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Unique Bella finishes strong to win La Brea Stakes

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Race Replay: La Brea Stakes (4:04)

Unique Bella beats Paradise Woods under the wire to win the Grade 1, $300,000 La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita Park on December 26, 2017. (4:04)

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Unique Bella's speed has been her biggest asset, but in the Breeders' Cup it became her biggest liability.

Because of the hot pace she set that day in the Filly and Mare Sprint, different tactics were used on Tuesday by jockey Mike Smith in the $301,305 La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita, and Unique Bella responded by capturing the first Grade 1 win of her career, all while looking as though a return to two turns will suit her just fine.

The seven-furlong La Brea was the most-anticipated race of the opening-day card, for it featured a long-overdue initial match between two of the leading 3-year-old fillies in the country in Unique Bella and Paradise Woods. They hooked up with three furlongs to run, and Unique Bella proved best late, winning by three-quarters of a length.

Mopotism was 1 3/4 lengths back in third, then came, in order, Marley's Freedom, Just a Little Hope, Princess Karen, Faypien, and Miss Sunset.

Unique Bella ($4.60), the favorite, completed seven furlongs on the fast main track in 1:21.49. The win was her sixth in eight starts. More importantly, it proved the Breeders' Cup was an aberration. Unique Bella, whose career has been interrupted by shin problems, had won five straight before she finished seventh in the Breeders' Cup.

"Mike and I thought she went too fast at Del Mar," winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said, referring to the Breeders' Cup. "We learned from that."

Indeed, Unique Bella was required to sit behind company in recent workouts and did not get rank, a sign she was amenable to not being asked to blast away.

She drew post 3 in the La Brea, and broke a half a step slowly, so Smith gradually angled her to the outside as the field advanced down the backstretch. By the time the runners reached the turn, Princess Karen led narrowly, with Unique Bella on her outside and Paradise Woods on her inside.

"He went wide and kept her in the clear," Hollendorfer said of Smith's ride. "We worked her like that a little, too."

Princess Karen gave way on the far turn, leaving Unique Bella and Paradise Woods to battle it out. The contrast between the two is startling, for Unique Bella is an absolute tank.

"I think she must weigh 1,200 pounds," said Hollendorfer when asked what she weighed.

Unique Bella, by Tapit, is owned by Don Alberto Stable. She earned $180,000 on Tuesday to bring her career total to $592,400, but her residual value skyrocketed owing to the Grade 1 win. Her four previous stakes wins were either Grade 2 or Grade 3.

"It's very important for me and the Don Alberto folks," Hollendorfer said.

Hollendorfer said he plans on racing Unique Bella at Santa Anita for much of the winter, and is eager to get her back around two turns. She's won both her races around two turns.

"I think she wants to go long," Hollendorfer said.